Across northwestern North Carolina and southwestern Virginia, prior to World War II, in many old cabins and homeplaces tucked in the mountains and foothills, there was a Christmas spirit that continued after Christmas Day ended.
The spirit of celebration led up to Epiphany or Old Christmas, and filled homes with music, friends, food, and dancing — an ongoing celebration traveling from house to house that lasted until Jan. 6, also known as Epiphany or Old Christmas.
This tradition is known as Breaking Up Christmas, and it is a tradition Surry Arts Council is striving to continue with a celebration that hearkens to the old times, free for everyone, along with an open invitation to bring an instrument, join in the festivities, and enjoy the night.
Breaking Up Christmas was held at the Historic Earle Theatre in downtown Mount Airy on Dec. 26 and 28, and will be held on Dec. 31 for New Year’s Eve, starting at 7 p.m. each night. Continuing the festivities is a jam session at the Earle, hosted by Tim Chadwick, on Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. and Backstep playing on Jan. 4., also at 7 p.m.
Ivy Sheppard of the SC Broadcasters will host the festivities. Sheppard also hosts the popular Tuesday night jam sessions at the Historic Earle Theatre, and a radio show on WPAQ, Surry Spotlight, from 2 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays, a highlight of old-time, bluegrass and gospel traditions of the county, including rare field recordings and tapes from WPAQ.
A tradition dating back hundreds of years
Like any good fiddle tune, the story behind Breaking Up Christmas is not one to be tied down.
Like any good tradition, passed down to younger generations, it transforms, taking on a life of its own.
Everyone agrees on one thing — Breaking Up Christmas is a celebration, a way to bridge the gap between Christmas and the new year, a way to carry on those traditions in a symbolic way, with a great, big gathering, complete with music, dancing, food, and merriment.
On Paul Brown’s “Breaking Up Christmas: A Blue Ridge Mountain Holiday” — a collection of field recordings, songs, history, and interviews from 1997 — the history of the tradition is pondered and explored, through stories behind both the tradition and the song of the same name. The show features Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Paul Sutphin, and more.
The tradition lasts for 12 days, from Christmas Day to Old Christmas on Jan. 6, the day when Jesus’ birth was celebrated prior to 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII adjusted the calendar. Many did not agree with the date change, and continued to celebrate Old Christmas, and even though American colonies adopted this calendar in 1752, some believe that small communities may have continued to celebrate Old Christmas, but new Christmas as well, resulting in a 12-day celebration. The song “12 Days of Christmas” includes a reference to the number 12, and another reference to 12 can be found in what many local old-timers consider the “ruling days,” when the weather that occurs in the 12-day span between Christmas Day and Old Christmas is used to determine the weather for the next year.
The days after Christmas have held celebrations throughout history, such as in Europe and Great Britain, when mummers’ plays were a part of the Christmas-season, with masked visitors going from home to home and performing elaborate plays, with song and dance, and eating food, drinking wine, until moving on to the next home. This tradition is still celebrated in the United States, in Philadelphia, Pa., with a large parade and festival, and string bands make up one of the largest groups participating in the event.
On Paul Brown’s “Breaking Up Christmas” show is a series of interviews with the late Paul Sutphin, who was 78 years old at the time, along with his childhood neighbor Eleanor Coleson, age 74 at the time, in 1997. They described the “good ole’ days” with furniture cleared out and pushed back in two rooms in the house, with a crowd of people dancing in both of the rooms at the same time, musicians playing in-between the doorways.
“Up to the sixth of January, we’d have Old Christmas,” Coleson said. “Two straight weeks of Christmas parties.”
Paul Brown went on to say that the tradition was still going on, now found in civic clubs and concert venues, like this year’s gathering at the Earle Theatre.
Chester McMillian has been part of the old-time music scene since he was a young boy, with music on both sides of his family, he said. He played guitar with Tommy Jarrell, starting in the late 1960s, for 15 years. McMillian helped start the band Backstep, that includes his son Nick.
McMillian said he’d been part of Breaking Up Christmas celebrations for as long as he could remember, and always knew it as a tradition that came from “back in the Tommy Jarrell days and even back 100 years ago, where everyone would get together at someone’s house and play music and eat, and then go to another house, doing it all along until the sixth of January.”
Dix Freeman, McMillian’s father-in-law, regularly hosted these festivities, McMillian fondly remembered: “They’ve been going on for many years…it’s been in the family a long time. It was the first place that Tommy Jarrell ever did a square dance.”
“I’ve been trying to keep the Round Peak style of music alive…we play a whole lot of it, and always have had a Breaking Up Christmas party. We did it at the Beulah Ruritan Building after we stopped having it at the old house,” McMillian recalled.
These days, McMillian participates in a private Breaking Up Christmas-style gathering in the Pilot Mountain and Pinnacle area, now in its 30th year, with “festival family” traveling “from far and wide” to attend the festivities, with each night hosted in a different home, confirmed one of the hosts, Nancy Sluys, who said that the “same spirit” of Breaking Up Christmas is captured in the gatherings.
“Breaking Up Christmas” — the song
“Breaking Up Christmas” is one of those old-time songs with an origin that is unknown, and like any good fiddle tune, it changes depending on who is playing it.
Chester McMillian said he’d been playing “Breaking Up Christmas” since he was “big enough to play music, sixty-some years.”
“Old man Fred Cockerham may put twenty-some versus on the song. He’d make it up as he went along,” McMillian remembered.
The words sometimes go like this:
“Hooray, Jack and hooray John,
Breaking up Christmas all night long.
Way back yonder, a long time ago,
Way down yonder alongside the creek,
I seen Santy Claus washing his feet.
Santa Claus come, done and gone,
Break up Christmas right along.”
Paul Sutphin, on Paul Brown’s “Breaking Up Christmas” show, credited the tune to one of his old neighbors named Pat McKinney, remembered by Sutphin as a Civil War Veteran: “Yeah, that’s old man Pat McKinney’s tune…he made up this ‘Breaking Up Christmas’…he’s the first man to ever fiddle it.” Sutphin said he didn’t know who wrote the words, only that they had been there since he had “started them.” McMillan said he knew of Pat McKinney, but could not confirm the story.
Sutphin blamed the decline of the Breaking Up Christmas tradition in private homes to the modern era, after World War II, when people came back home to the mountains and foothills and “found a changed world…and that new distraction — television.”
People no longer had the luxury of partying for 12 days after Christmas-time, Sutphin said, because “they had day jobs to get to.” Sutphin went on to say “a lot of it changed when Elvis Presley got started,” with the new style of music capturing the attention of so many, even in the foothills and mountains of home.
Kelly Epperson, general manager and co-owner of WPAQ, said the station would air Paul Brown’s “Breaking Up Christmas” show Saturday at 3 p.m. and wanted to invite everyone to tune in and learn more about the Breaking Up Christmas tradition.
Surry Arts Council’s Breaking Up Christmas will be held on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, at the Historic Earle Theatre, beginning at 7 p.m., hosted by Ivy Sheppard. The festivities continue with a jam session hosted by Tim Chadwick on Jan. 2 and Backstep on Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. All Breaking Up Christmas events are free. For more information, visit www.surryarts.org or call 786-7998.
Reach Jessica Johnson at 719-1933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.